2021 Walter A. Strauss Lecture Series - Can Robots Feel Pain? The “Science of the Soul” and the Personhood of Things

Color head shot of african american man (Sylvester Johnson) in a library wearing suit and tie
November 3, 2021 - 5:00 PM

The 2021 Strauss lectures are presented by Sylvester A. Johnson, founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities and a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. He is assistant vice provost for the humanities at Virginia Tech and executive director of the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative. This lecture series, in memory of Walter A. Strauss (1923-2008), who was the Elizabeth and William T. Treuhaft Professor of Humanities, is generously supported by funds provided by the Paul Wurzburger Endowment.

In this lecture, Johnson interprets the work of Ibn Rushd (Averroës), the twelfth-century Islamic scholar of Andalusia who achieved renown as the “father” of secularism, in order to elucidate Ibn Rushd’s theory of the intellect as a power of the soul. Johnson leverages Rushd’s distinction between sensing and knowing in order to examine contemporary, sensory-driven AI technology (particularly brain-computer-interface architectures) as a uniquely generative problem of interest for humanists and technical experts alike. Of central importance is the sensation of pain, as it constitutes a phenomenon of embodiment, a category of human experience, and a political problem.